Farish Sawyer Inspires Better Students and Teachers with the Breakthrough Collaborative

All middle school students are not created equal. Enter the Breakthrough Collaborative, a national organization that gives 6th, 7th and 8th graders around the country the opportunity to improve their education and reach their dreams. Farish Sawyer, a senior program director of Breakthrough of Greater Philadelphia, talked with Knowledge@Wharton High School about enriching the lives of young students, while also mentoring high school and college students to become excellent teachers. An edited transcript of the conversation is below.

Knowledge@Wharton High School: We are here today with Farish Sawyer, senior program director of Breakthrough of Greater Philadelphia, an organization that provides a path for low-income, high-achieving, middle school students to succeed and gives high school and college students the opportunity to get involved through education and leadership. Farish, what is Breakthrough Collaborative and what are some of its goals?

Farish Sawyer: Breakthrough Collaborative is a national organization with about 29 sites around the country. We work to encourage low-income, high-achieving middle school students to reach their goals of going to college and being the doctors and lawyers that they dream of becoming. We provide a path of academic enrichment and mentorship starting in 6th grade all the way through 12th grade. We have a dual mission of not only inspiring and encouraging our middle school students to be successful, but also encouraging talented and bright high school and college students to go into the field of education through summer internships and school-year volunteer positions around the country.

KWHS:: How have the opportunities that Breakthrough provides changed its participants’ futures? Where are some of the participants now?

Sawyer: About 85% of our middle school students go on to college. In terms of coming from public schools that are low performing, this is a huge success rate compared to most of their peers. In Philadelphia, 95% of our students go on to selective magnet high schools, whether that’s independent parochial schools or some of the more competitive high schools in the area. The vast majority of our teachers also go on to careers in the field of education. We are being successful at both of our goals of getting people — excellent people, talented people — into the field of education, while also getting our middle school students where they want to go.

KWHS: During the summer the program really comes alive when high school and college students apply to teach their own classes. How does the summer program operate?

Sawyer: The summer program is similar around the country. Philadelphia teachers commit to eight weeks. The first is a week of orientation that involves a crash course in education — everything you can imagine from lesson planning to classroom management. The students are then with us for six intense weeks, every day from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. They take four core academic subjects, which include social studies, science, math and a class called “Writing Through Literature.” In the afternoon they take electives, which are put on by the teachers. In the evenings the teachers are responsible for attending staff meetings and committee meetings. They must also write their lesson plans with the support of mentor-teachers — professional teachers from the district and from the area who coach and support our young teachers to make them excellent in their classroom. This ensures that our middle school students are getting the best education possible throughout the summer, while also giving our new teachers a real chance to develop in that role as a teacher in the classroom. The eighth week is a final wrap-up week for our teachers where we debrief and talk about the experience we have been through. Like you said, it is definitely a high-energy, high-spirit, hard-work environment for everybody involved. The students and teachers alike get a lot out of it both academically and in terms of spirit and energy.

KWHS: How can high school students get involved? Is it a good preparation for a career in teaching?

Sawyer: We have about 30 Breakthrough sites around the country. You apply for the summer program through our national website at breakthroughcollaborative.org. You can link on to the national application and select any one of up to four of the 30 sites that you are interested in teaching at and complete the application. Those applications are sent directly to the sites for consideration. It is easy to apply online. If you are interested in getting involved during the school-year program, you should contact the site that is closest to you. Again, all of the sites are listed on the national website at breakthroughcollaborative.org.

In terms of the valuable [teaching] experience that our high school and college students get, you really are thrown into the classroom. It’s not just a tutoring experience. You actually have your own class, you are doing your own lesson plans and you are gaining invaluable experience. By no means do you have to think that you want to be a teacher to become part of the program. You can and that’s great, but you don’t have to say, “Oh, I’m going to be a teacher and this is what I am going to do.” We have college students with all different majors. We have students in high school who are exploring different career paths.

Our teachers are passionate and committed to the young people in their community and are interested in getting involved and engaged. Breakthrough Collaborative was listed as one of the top 10 internships in the country along with the White House and MTV. If you think about that in terms of rankings, in terms of experience and in terms of gaining a lot of background that is going to look valuable on your resume regardless of the field you go into, it is a great experience for you. You will work harder than you ever have, but I guarantee that you will take the connections that you make with other teachers and students with you for the rest of your life.

I was a [Breakthrough] teacher when I was in college at McGill University in Montreal, where I majored in psychology and sociology. That’s how I got involved with the organization. After doing some other work for a few years, I came back to the organization because it’s something that I feel so passionate about on both of its goals — working with the middle school students as well as inspiring high school and college students to go into teaching.

KWHS: What classes have student teachers taught?

Sawyer: It varies by site across the country. As I mentioned, Philadelphia teachers teach “Writing Through Literature.” They teach social studies; our 7th grade social studies curriculum focuses on domestic issues. Our 8th grade curriculum is Model United Nations. We teach science; our 7th grade curriculum is biology and our 8th grade is physics. We also do math; 7th grade is pre-algebra and 8th grade is algebra. Those are the core subjects we offer. We place teachers in those different areas based on their interests and their skill levels. In the afternoon teachers get to develop their own classes, which we call electives. That is something that the teacher is passionate about and really wants to share with our young people in the program. It includes everything from chess to hip-hop dance to African dance to soccer.

One of the big differences is that our classes are small. All of our classes have six to eight students in them. Imagine what you can do with six to eight kids in a class compared to what a regular teacher in the district might do with 30 students. It’s an ideal environment to try out teaching the subjects that you think you may want to teach in the future.

KWHS: Breakthrough Collaborative runs year-round in cities around the country and in Hong Kong. Are aspects of Breakthrough of Greater Philadelphia different from those in other cities? Are student teachers from the Philadelphia chapter ever in contact with those in other cities?

Sawyer: They are both good questions. One of the things that makes Breakthrough of Greater Philadelphia unique is that we are one of the larger programs, with three sites within Philadelphia. We run one program at Germantown Friends School and recruit from middle schools in the Germantown area. We run a site at St. Joseph’s University and recruit from middle schools in the West Philadelphia area. And we also run a site at Grover Washington Junior Middle School and recruit from students in the middle schools in the Olney area. Philadelphia and Miami are the only two programs that have multiple sites.

Overall, I would say that all the sites across the country have the same expectations for our students in terms of reaching their goals of going to college. Sometimes how we do that can be a little bit different, but it is a similar structure in terms of the teachers, mentor-teachers and students. The Philadelphia teachers are in contact with each other even though they might be teaching at different sites over the summer. In terms of being in communication with other teachers across the Collaborative, the national office, which is based out of San Francisco, has started to do a few different online networking things for some of the teachers. There is something on Facebook where the different teachers communicate with each other and there is a blog where teachers from around the country can share their experiences and communicate with each other. The national office wants to encourage networking between the young teachers participating in the internships every summer.

On the staff side, we get together at national conferences every year and talk to each other about our experiences and also learn and grow from best practices going on at other sites. [In October] we are heading to Denver, Colorado for our conference, so we will get a chance to hear about everybody’s summer.

KWHS: How does Breakthrough, a non-profit, receive funding?

Sawyer: Different Breakthrough sites across the country have different funding patterns.   Breakthrough in Philadelphia is an independent 501(c)(3), meaning that we are an organization that receives our money through foundations as well as through individual donors. We write a lot of grants. Our staff consists of two people who are responsible for fundraising, without which the organization wouldn’t stay afloat. We are also very fortunate to receive a lot of in-kind donations. Penn Charter in Philadelphia, which hosts our high school program, as well as St. Joseph’s University, Germantown Friends School and Grover Washington Junior Middle School, all give us the space that we use during the summer and for the after-school program completely free. If it weren’t for that kind of generosity, as well as the generosity of individuals and foundations, it wouldn’t be possible for us to stay afloat. We also received a city grant last year in Philadelphia. One of the city’s big goals is to significantly decrease the dropout rate and increase the number of Philadelphia residents with college degrees. In order to do that, they have started giving out money for out-of-school-time programming. It is great to be working toward those initiatives that the city has established.

KWHS: As senior program director, what have you learned about management through working with Breakthrough Collaborative?

Sawyer: A lot. I have been in different roles. I started off as a site director in Philadelphia and then about a year ago I transitioned into my role as senior program director. Both of the roles are about relationship building and maintaining relationships both with the staff that you are supervising, as well as with partners across the community. The biggest thing that I’ve learned is to be flexible and not take anything too seriously or freak out about anything, especially when you are working with kids and college students. Things happen.   You need to be able to roll with the punches and think on your feet.

In most fields you have to be able to adjust to the situation that is being thrown at you. The biggest thing in terms of management is being a good listener. Right now my staff of site directors and high school services directors has different needs and different wants. I have to make sure that they are upholding the expectations that I have for them and the expectations of the organization, while also making sure that I support them in the ways that they need to be supported as individuals. It’s the same approach when you’re working with high school students and college students. Everybody is unique and different in terms of what they need to be successful at their job.

KWHS: Are aspects of education changing that have resulted in changes to Breakthrough’s structure?

Sawyer: Since I’ve been involved in Breakthrough, there has always been a group of students that has needed extra support. Breakthrough started in the 1970s in San Francisco and has always had the same mission of working with students who aren’t provided the same educational opportunities as their middle and upper-middle class peers. Unfortunately, I think until we are in a society where everybody is provided with equal opportunities, an organization like Breakthrough is going to have to exist.

My old executive director used to say that Breakthrough is an organization that we don’t want to have to exist. But until things are more on a level playing field, we have to be there to support the people who aren’t getting that support otherwise. Students who are part of our program have these dreams when we recruit them in 6th grade. They have goals. But, unfortunately, the structure isn’t there to get them to reach [those goals]. I feel very honored to be part of an organization that has a path to get the students there.

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